When legendary director Quentin Tarantino adds you to his troupe, it’s a big fucking deal. It certainly was for stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who had made her way from competitive gymnastics to the set of Xena: Warrior Princess, when she got her big-time job: doubling Uma on the set of Kill Bill. Since then, she has ridden 90 mph on the top of a Challenger, brawled with female prisoners, been cast in all-female Expendables knockoff, and started to act as well as do stunt work. She is, in short, in the process of going from being a double to a single.
Maxim caught up with Bell on one of her days off from shooting Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, to chat about preparing for roles, what makes her nervous (it’s not what you think), and being an intimidating date.
You’ve done a lot of different types of stunt work. Do you prepare differently for each role?
As long as I’m staying in good shape, there are some things I can just pull out day-of. If it’s new or a unique skill fit, I will put myself through some serious training. You should be preparing to be ready on your own, whether there is rehearsal time or not. As an actor it’s a little different; they ask me how much [stunt] work I am capable of doing on my own, and they put me through training if necessary. I’m a fast learner.
What have been the actual hazards of pursuing this career?
There's been a couple of things. First, I had to switch identities from being the athletic jock tomboy; people required me to be feminine and extremely vulnerable. No one has ever seen me as feminine. The second was a matter of doing enough acting that I felt comfortable knowing what I was capable of doing. With stunt work, I’m not going to be like, "I’m amazing and I know this and I’m great and that," but if you ask me to do something, I know if I can do it. With acting, it’s all about repetition and doing drills and being someone else.
The third thing is convincing people to take me seriously. With acting, you carry a lot of responsibility, and it’s basically why I stopped saying yes to some stunt work a couple of years ago. It’s hard, to get people not to perceive you in one way.
Do you think men find dangerous women sexy? Or are your male co-stars kind of intimidated by a woman who could kick their ass?
That question haunts me. It never occurred to me that I’m intimidating. If I walked around being like, "I could kick your ass" when I was on a date, then guys would probably take offense to that. Personally, I’m not that way. I’m not aggressive by nature, and I like the science and rawness of what I do. If a guy thinks I’m intimidating because I have the job that I have, then maybe we shouldn’t be seeing each other.
Since working on Kill Bill, you’ve done quite a lot with Quentin Tarantino. Are you turning into his muse?
He’s quite a fan of the stunt community, and he’s a fan of people doing stuff for real, and I symbolize that for him. I don’t know if he’s my muse or I’m his [laughs].
What inspired the transition from stuntwoman to starlet?
Quentin obviously inspired it with Death Proof. He was considerate to me many times in my life, in that whimsical fantastical sense.
You play yourself in Death Proof. Do you think doing that was harder than if you had to portray a new character?
That’s an interesting question. My words were all Quentin, and his dialogue was very strong and made me into a new character. It’s weird and quite strange to play yourself. To be honest, I had never been in acting school, so I didn’t know the difference. Now I feel like I’ve met enough people and been in front of cameras enough to distinguish between the two. I had done maybe three lines of dialogue, ever, before doing Death Proof. Being a caricature of yourself is hard if you’ve never discovered yourself as a caricature before.
So what was more nerve-wracking: remembering your lines or riding on top of the Dodge Challenger?
The lines, for sure. It wasn’t even just the lines, because I knew the script inside out and backwards. What made me really anxious was having the camera in my face. As a stuntwoman, my job was to avoid the lens at all costs, and now to be standing up with the job of offering real emotion with people watching was terrifying. It was far more terrifying than anything I had to do on the car. Also, it has to do with the fact that I had a phenomenal team that I trusted. I wasn’t getting on that car fearing for my life. We may or may not have been going 70 to 90 mph on that car. Little bugs felt like bullets in my face.
Could Death Proof be one of your favorite roles to date?
I’ve never been one to pick favorites, but it was a pinnacle role for me. Working with Quentin changed the way I am as a person and an actor.
You’re in The Hateful Eight, which is this much-anticipated movie. What—if anything—can you tell us?
I would hate to give away anything.
Photos by Splash News / Corbis